November 2017 Volume 14

Gullah of South Carolina

Michael O. Walters
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My wife and I attended a 2017 Gullah Festival, a cultural exposé packed with history and entertainment, on May 26 to 28.  The Festival was in Beaufort, South Carolina.  Beaufort is a part of Beaufort County on the eastern part of South Carolina.  The County consists of 21 islands, known as Sea Islands (Beaufort_map).
But, who were the Gullahs? The Gullah are a distinctive group of Black Americans from South Carolina and Georgia in the southeastern United States. They live in small farming and fishing communities along the Atlantic coastal plain and on the chain of Sea Islands which runs parallel to the coast. Because of their geographical isolation and strong community life, the Gullah have been able to preserve more of their African cultural heritage than any other group of Black Americans. They speak a creole language similar to Sierra Leone Krio, use African names, tell African folktales, make African-style handicrafts such as baskets and carved walking sticks, and enjoy a rich cuisine based primarily on rice.
Story teller Aunt Pearlie Sue related the history as follows:

  • Europeans landed in Beaufort County before they landed at James Town.
  • Carolina (no separation between NC and SC at the time) was a part of the Confederacy and slavery was not yet abolished.
  • As the Civil War approached, Beaufort County became a focal point of secession from the United States, and the original ordinance of Secession was drafted in Beaufort and signed by all the slave owning plantation owners.
  • On November 7, 1861,  Seventy seven (77) Union Ships attacked Port Royal from Port Royal Sound
  • The confederate army fled as did all the white land owners, and families including the slave owners.   According to Aunt Pearlie Sue, the fleeing was so rapid that uneaten dinner was left on the table, jewelry in the boxes, etc.  Not all white people were slave owners; many were abolitionists and an integral part of the Underground Railroad.
  • With no owners in site, the slaves were effectively free.   

Dr Louise Cohen, the founder and director of the non­profit Gullah Museum of Hilton Head, described the language and settlement of the ex-slaves as follows:

  • These ex-slaves were originally from West Africa, but over the years developed their own language (Gullah). Some words were African, depending on which part of Africa the person came from, but other words were created from English words, or a mixture of both.  For example, the word “nyam” meaning to eat, came from an African Dialect and remained the same.   An example of a shortened word is “da”, which was derived from “that”.  According to Dr. Cohen, they did not put the tongue between the teeth and pronounce “th” but replaced “th” with “d”; nor did they pronounce the “t” at the end.  
  • Mitchelville is a town formed for former slaves, now freedmen, on Hilton Head Island.  Nearby, Fort Howell was constructed to protect these former slaves.

Incidentally, the word “Nyam” is also used in Jamaica, confirming a common heritage, but in Jamaica “That” becomes “dat” also replacing the “th” with “d” but retaining the “t” at the end (well, sometimes).  Shona Heron of Training and Development Services in Montego Bay, reminds me that in parts of Jamaica they say "da bwoy deh."......”da ooman deh” etc.  There you have it, the usage is identical; well sometimes.  Lousie Bennet in some of her speeches alluded to the similarly in language between Jamaica and Gullah.
In a visit to Mitchelville we saw Historic sites such as Cherry Hill School (School_Description_and School_photos), and St James Baptist Church (Church_Description_and_Church_Photos).  Enactments included brothers representing the Union and Confederate side (Brothers_photo), abolitionist (abolitionist_photo), and ex-slaves of the Union Army in Mitchelville (Union_Army_Mitchelvill_Photo).

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